Minerals, as currently classified in the Minerals Development Acts 1940 to 2017 (the Minerals Development Acts), include all substances in, on, or under ground except:
- the agricultural surface of the ground;
- turf or peat; and
- stone, sand, gravel or clay
In practice, this means most quarries producing aggregates for the construction industry, agricultural lime or dimension stone, e.g. for buildings or grave stones, are not working minerals and do not require any permits under the Minerals Development Acts. This applies to most aggregates except for a few listed minerals e.g. Roofing Slate, Connemara Marble, Silica Sand and Ball Clay. The most common minerals covered by the Acts and being mined or prospected for in Ireland are Zinc, Lead, Gold, Gypsum and Coal.
The Petroleum Minerals Development Act 1960 removed petroleum (oil and natural gas) from the scope of the Minerals Development Acts and created standalone regulations of petroleum exploration and development.
Mineral exploration, also known as ‘prospecting’, is the process of finding commercially viable concentrations of minerals to mine. Mining refers to the extraction (or working) of minerals. At the end of 2014, 639 Prospecting Licences were in force nationally.
Ireland’s mineral reserves
Ireland has a diversity of mineral deposits, with a mining history spanning over 4,000 years. See here for a brief overview of Ireland’s mining history.
The island of Ireland has a widely varied geological framework, with rocks ranging in age from Proterozoic (2,500 million years ago) to the present day (see image). The island can be divided into a number of mineral provinces endowed with a broad range of base and precious metals as well as industrial mineral deposits. Large parts of Ireland are covered by metasediments and metavolcanics of Proterozoic (2,500 years ago) and Lower Palaeozoic age (250 million years ago). These rocks are known to contain significant base metal mineralisation (e.g. copper at Avoca) and gold-bearing quartz veins. The latter style of mineralisation has been the focus of extensive exploration efforts in Northern Ireland, and in 1999, an opencast gold mine was opened at Cavanacaw in Co Tyrone. The Lower Carboniferous (360 million years ago) limestones of the Irish Midlands (the Central Ireland Basin) are host to one of the great orefields of the world.
Since the 1960s, Ireland is a leading global producer of zinc, lead and barite. Ireland currently accounts for a significant proportion of both European zinc mine output and European lead mine output. Since this period, fifteen significant zinc-lead deposits have been discovered, with six becoming producing mines. Ireland has been ranked first in the world in terms of zinc discovered per square kilometre, and second in the world with respect to lead. The country is also Europe's largest zinc producer. Its two underground base metal mines account for some 31% of European zinc production, and they also provide 11% of its lead. Ireland's younger rocks contain significant deposits of industrial minerals, most notably the gypsum deposit at [Knocknacran], Co Monaghan, that is found in an outlier of Permian rocks. Zinc, lead and gypsum are key components of the current Irish mining industry (Houses of the Oireachtas, 2015).
There are currently two operating mines in Ireland:
- Navan mine in Co. Meath (zinc-lead);
- Irish Gypsum’s operations near Knocknacran (open pit and underground) in Co Monaghan (gypsum).
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